Tuesday, January 04, 2005

About the tsunami and how some of the reactions are based ...

Here's something that came up in an online forum that I am part of. It certainly is an interesting read.

The Belmont Club had a great post on how we react to black-swan events like the Tsunami. The last two paragraphs were, I thought, especially interesting.


The tsunami that ripped across the Indian Ocean, smashing westward into Sri Lanka, the Indian subcontinent and eventually to Africa is an example of a rare event, like an asteroid strike, which is often considered uneconomical to prepare against until it happens. In hindsight, a few simple precautions could have saved thousands of lives.


Now that a tsunami has struck the Indian Ocean there were will probably be a clamor to invest in monitoring and warning systems costing billions. Ironically, these magnificent systems will probably go unused for years, perhaps centuries, before politicians in the future elected by voters whose memory of these tragedies has faded say 'what are these White Elephants for?' and abolish them in favor a more immediately beneficial project. The characteristic of rare events is that they are rare.

Although the geological record shows that large asteroids occasionally strike the earth and that tsunamis sometimes ravage coastal areas, the rarity of their occurrence often precludes the formation of a political consensus to sustain preparations against them. There will be momentary interest, a search for scapegoats and then a gradual return to forgetfulness. ... [T]he trivialization has started already.

The window of opportunity to make a difference came when seismographs all over the world measured the quake and triangulated its epicenter. Then, and surely after the first giant waves crashed ashore in Phuket, Thailand it would have been evident that a tsunami danger existed across the whole Indian Ocean. The Indian subcontinent, still some hours distant from the ocean monster which was then bearing down at airliner speed, might have received the benefit of warning. The communications technology existed to theoretically raise the alarm, but like an organism whose nervous pathways exist yet do not meet in a central place where the impulses can be collated to make sense, no one knew what to make of the data. And the waves crashed down on unsuspecting thousands.

In an abstract way, the information flows surrounding the Tsunami of December 2004 structurally resembled those preceding the Pearl Harbor and September 11 attacks. The raw data announcing the unfolding threat was there, yet the pattern so evident in hindsight was invisible to those who were not looking for it. But if tsunamis and asteroid strikes are rare events, they are comparatively more common than that still rarer object, the unprecedented event: the something that has never happened before. Threats like that can emerge suddenly out of chaotic systems, like WMD terrorism or new viral plagues. Against such events, specific precautions are impossible because no one can prepare for what cannot be foreseen. The real challenge is not so much to create a new dedicated network of staring systems against known threats but to tie current sensors to systems which are capable of cognition. The most valuable survival asset is situational awareness -- the ability to recognize threats you have never seen before and respond in an evolving manner -- and that capability has not yet come to the world as a whole.

The realization of its necessity has come, at least in some small measure, to institutions which are scorned by some the sneering readers of the Sydney Morning Herald. The Internet, space based sensors, biohazard threat detection, the exoatmospheric interception of earthbound objects -- are all things deemed at one time or another as a waste of money by the more enlightened, but which may yet provide the margin for survival in a day unforeseen or unimagined. More important than the the specific technologies themselves is the watchful and precautionary mindset which created them. For some, the world is not and was never a paradaisal Gaia but a dangerous place filled with peril both natural and man-made. On the days we forget the ocean is there to remind us.

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